Syrian civil defence members search for survivors in the rubble of a building following the Russian airstrikes targeting a market and residential area in Ariha town Idlib, northern Syria on Nov. 29, 2015.
Syrian civil defence members search for survivors in the rubble of a building following the Russian airstrikes targeting a market and residential area in Ariha town Idlib, northern Syria on Nov. 29, 2015.  Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

Russian Airstrikes in Syria Seem to Be Hurting Civilians More Than ISIS

Nov 30, 2015

One airstrike hit a post office, part of a series of strikes that killed 17 civilians. At least four other attacks targeted hospitals. An airstrike on Sunday hit a marketplace, killing at least 30 people.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria is killing civilians at a high rate in rebel-held areas of the country’s northwest, even as the campaign has failed to produce a decisive shift in the larger civil war between regime of president Bashar Assad and his opponents.

Russia launched a major campaign of airstrikes beginning on September 30 in support of the Assad regime’s fight to maintain and expand the territory it still controls in Syria. The Russian government claims the operation has targeted the extremists of ISIS, but the majority of Russian strikes have actually fallen on areas controlled by mainstream rebel groups opposed to both Assad and ISIS, and often supported by the West.

During the month of October, Russian operations resulted in at least 44 individual strikes that killed between 255 and 375 non-combatants at a conservative estimate, according to Airwars, a watchdog group that carefully combs reports of civilian deaths.

The now two-month-old Russian bombing campaign has also evolved with the shifting tide of the broader crisis in the Middle East. After directing most strikes toward rebel-held areas in the northwest in the early stages of its campaign, it intensified the campaign against ISIS after Russian officials confirmed on November 17 that a Russian airliner had been brought down over Egypt in an attack that had been claimed by an ISIS affiliate.

After Turkey shot down a Russian fighter plane near its own border with Syria last week, there were signs that Russia shifted focus back to the northwest, in apparent retaliation against Turkey and the rebel groups it may support in Syria.

Yuri Barmin, a Moscow-based analyst at Rethinking Russia and the Russian International Affairs Council, said Russia had doubled the number of warplanes operating out of its airbase in Latakia, in northwestern Syria, in a decision issued on November 17, after it was confirmed that the Russian airliner was bombed. “Moscow feels as if it was forced into carrying out strikes [against ISIS] in Raqqa and Deir al-Zour, and now that its fighter jet was shot down over Syria, it says, ‘Okay, we’ll go back to the old strategy and we’ll double our efforts in northwest Syria, even [against] Turkey-supported rebel groups,’” he said.

The front lines between the regime and insurgents in rebel-held cities remain relatively unchanged since the Russian campaign began two months ago. There have been some exceptions, including when government forces broke a siege by ISIS on Kweiris airbase on November 11, breaking an impasse that lasted for over a year and reclaiming a military asset from the jihadists.

Syrian civil defense members carry a wounded man into an ambulance following the Russian airstrikes targeting a market and residential area in Ariha town Idlib, northern Syria on Nov. 29, 2015.
Syrian civil defense members carry a wounded man into an ambulance following the Russian airstrikes targeting a market and residential area in Ariha town Idlib, northern Syria on Nov. 29, 2015.  Anadolu Agency—Getty Images 

But in general, activists, analysts, and monitoring groups say the Russian warplanes have simply bolstered the existing operations by the regime, which to date have killed far more Syrian civilians than any other force in the country. Between January and July of this year, government forces killed 7,894 civilians, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (a group critical of Assad), compared to 1,131 killed by ISIS and 734 by armed opposition groups.

In rebel-held Aleppo—once Syria’s largest city, now devastated after nearly five years of rebellionwar-weary residents appear to regard the Russian airstrikes as simply one more source of horror. “We see 10 to 15, sometimes 20 airstrikes a day,” says Rami Jarrah, Syrian media activist currently in Aleppo producing a series of video reports documenting the airstrikes. “There’s an atmosphere of despair. The people in general here have gotten used to the war. They don’t believe that a solution is coming.”

In fact, Jarrah says that the Russian airstrikes have picked up some of the slack from the government's air force, which is in tatters after years of fighting. That means there are now more conventional airstrikes and fewer improvised barrel bombs, which kill indiscriminately when they fall. Regardless, he sees the Russian campaign as a cynical continuation of the regime’s offensive against anti-ISIS rebels. Neither Russia nor Assad "is preventing ISIS from coming to Aleppo, in terms of Russia or Assad," he says.

Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst on Syria at International Crisis Group, says that part of the reason the Russian campaign has so far failed to deliver a decisive blow against the rebels is that rebel groups have been able to effectively use U.S.-supplied TOW missiles, a potent weapon that brought down a Russian helicopter last week. “The foreign and local dynamics are all meshed together,” he says. “We’ve seen marginal regime gains in some places, and marginal rebel gains in others.”

The Russian military is far from the only force that is killing civilian in Syria. Raids by the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS, have killed between 682 and 977 civilians over the length of the entire campaign since August 2014, according to Airwars.

By comparison, the group reports that Russian strikes are killing civilians at a rate roughly 10 times faster than the coalition. Airwars project director Chris Woods says that video footage of airstrikes released by the Russian government indicate that Russian warplanes are using more primitive, unguided munitions. One video shows a Russian long-range bomber dropping “sticks” of unguided bombs from above the clouds.

“That was a very worrying image for us. There is no control of those munitions. Just dropping a stick like that means its going to cause significant damage on the ground over a wide area,” he says. “We’re very used to seeing those images going back to Vietnam or even the Iraq war in the early 1990s, but we don’t tend to see those kind of images anymore, simply because western militaries have changed the way, generally speaking, they fight.”

In addition, Woods said that the number of civilian deaths resulted from where the Russians are choosing to bomb. “There is no doubt whatsoever that Russia is heavily targeting civilian areas." While the shooting down of a Russian jet by Turkey produced geopolitical concern over the conflict among great powers in Syria, the reality of the war on the ground will be one of ongoing bloodshed among civilians.

18-year-old YPJ fighter Torin Khairegi: “We live ina world where women are dominated by men.We are here to take control of our future..I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME Zinar base, Syria "I joined YPJ about seven months ago, because I was looking for something meaningful in my life and my leader [ Abdullah Ocalan] showed me the way and my role in the society. We live in a world where women are dominated by men. We are here to take control of our own future. We are not merely fighting with arms; we fight with our thoughts. Ocalan's ideology is always in our hearts and minds and it is with his thought that we become so empowered that we can even become better soldiers than men. When I am at the frontline, the thought of all the cruelty and injustice against women enrages me so much that I become extra-powerful in combat. I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path."
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18-year-old YPJ (Women's Protection Unit) fighter Torin Khairegi: “We live in a world where women are dominated by men. We are here to take control of our future. I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobani. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been martyred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path."Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
18-year-old YPJ fighter Torin Khairegi: “We live ina world where women are dominated by men.We are here to take control of our future..I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME Zinar base, Syria "I joined YPJ about seven months ago, because I was looking for something meaningful in my life and my leader [ Abdullah Ocalan] showed me the way and my role in the society. We live in a world where women are dominated by men. We are here to take control of our own future. We are not merely fighting with arms; we fight with our thoughts. Ocalan's ideology is always in our hearts and minds and it is with his thought that we become so empowered that we can even become better soldiers than men. When I am at the frontline, the thought of all the cruelty and injustice against women enrages me so much that I become extra-powerful in combat. I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path."
YPJ fighters on their base at the border between Syria and Iraq. Young female fighters are indoctrinated to the ideology of their charismatic leader, Abdullah Ocalan, head of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), who promotes marxist thought and empowerment of women.Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
18 year-old YPJ fighter Saria Zilan from Amuda, Syria:"I fought with ISIS in Serikani. I captured one of them and wanted to kill him, but my comrades did not let me. He kept staring at the ground and would not look at me, because he said it was forbidden by his religion to look at a woman." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME "It's been one year and four months since I joined YPJ. When I saw Martyr Deli on TV after ISIS beheaded her, I went to her burial ceremony the next day in Amuda. I saw Deli's mother sobbing madly. Right there I swore to myself to avenge her death. I joined YPJ the day after. In the past, women had various roles in the society. but all those roles were taken from them. We are here now to take back the role of women in society. I grew up in a country, where I was not allowed to speak my mother tongue of Kurdish. I was not allowed to have a Kurdish name. If you were a pro-Kurdish activist, they'd arrest you and put you in jail. But since the Rojava revolution, we have been getting back our rights. We were not allowed to speak our language before, and now ISIS wants to wipe us off completely from the Earth. I fought with ISIS in Serikani. I captured one of them and wanted to kill him, but my comrades did not let me do so. He kept staring at the ground and would not look at me, because he said it was forbidden by his religion to look at a woman. I have changed a lot. My way of thinking about the world has changed since I joined YPJ. Maybe some people wonder why we're doing this. But when they get to know us better, they will understand why. We are emotional people."
20-year old YPJ fighter Aijan Denis from Amuda, Syria: "Where I am now, men and women are equal and we all have the same thought, which is fighting for our ideology and the rights of women. My three sisters and I are all in YPJ. "Newsha Tavakolian for TIME I joined YPJ in 2011. One day when I was watching TV, they were showing pictures of women who had been killed. I was really impressed by that and decided to join the army myself. Where I am now, men and women are equal and we all have the same thought, which is fighting for our ideology and the rights of women. My three sisters and I are all in YPJ. They all operate RPGs. I wish to become so skilled that I will be allowed to do the same."
YPJ members take part in daily combat training at their base in Serikani. Syria.Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
Three YPJ fighters sit in an armed vehicle at their basein eastern Syria, days after returning from the front. Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
YPJ members, including some who were wounded fighting against ISIS in Kobani, Syria, at the all-women Asayesh Security Base in Derek, Syria. Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
16 year-old YPJ fighter Barkhodan Kochar from Darbasi, Syria. "The war influenced me a lot. Before joining YPJ, whenever I asked my family about politics, they'd say 'that's not your business, you're just a girl'. But when I saw how the women of YPJ gave their lives for what they believed in, I knew that I wanted to be one of them." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME "I joined YPJ in 2014, because I wanted to defend my homeland. The war influenced me a lot. Before joining YPJ, whenever I asked my family about politics, they'd say 'that's not your business, you're just a girl'. But when I saw how the women of YPJ gave their lives for what they believed in, I knew that I wanted to be one of them. I feel much more empowered as a woman now. As a 16-year-old girl, I think that I have a very important role in my country and I will keep on fighting until the last drop of my blood is shed."
A billboard showing fallen YPJ solders,reading, “Withyou we live on and life continues.”Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
In Western Kurdistan, the Syrian autonomous region Kurds call Rojava, young people are taught the ideology of the PYD (the Democratic Union Party of Syria), an affiliate of PKK (Kirdistan Workers' Party). Many of these young people will soon be drafted into YPJ and YPG armies to fight ISIS.  Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
in Syria, graves of YPJ members who were killed fighting ISIS. In the foreground, female fighters are buried together.Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
A picture of 17 year-old Cicek Derek, who died in the besieged city of Kobani, Syria, where her fellow fighters were unable to retrieve her body. Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
Rojin, the sister of 17 year-old YPJ fighter Cicek Derek who died fighting in Kobani, Syria. "When my mother told Cicek, please stay with your mother', she answered 'I left to fight for all the mothers of the world. I cannot stay here." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME"My sister was very naive and sensitive when she left us. But four years later, when she came back to bury the body of her friend who had been killed in Kobane, she was smart and tough and I could see lots of self-confidence in her eyes. When my mother told her 'please don't go back, stay with your mother', she answered 'I left to fight for all the mothers of the world. I cannot stay here'. When she came back for her friend's burial, she briefly visited the house. She kept taking pictures in every corner and with all of us, as if it was her the last party of her life."
A scarf belonging to 17-year-old YPJ fighter Cicek Derek, who was killed in Kobane, Syria, was all that could be brought back to her family. Her body remains in kobane, Syria.Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
A wedding dress outside a bridal shop in a town near Qamishlou, Syria. YPG graffiti can be seen on the walls of adjacent buildings. YPJ and YPG members are neither allowed to marry, nor can they have sexual relationships, according the their ideology. Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
20 year-old YPJ fighter Beritan Khabat from Derek, Syria. She joined the YPJ four years ago to protect her homeland and put an end to the suppression of women. "I fought with ISIS in Jezza and Serikani. Women of YPJ are not scared of ISIS." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME Beritan believes that in her society women should be armed with guns and fight for their rights. She says that they have created a new idea for the men of the world. telling them that women too can be good fighters. "I fought with ISIS in Jezza and Serikani. And the first time I heard the sound of bullets next to my ears was in Talala town, while I was fighting with ISIS for the first time. The first time I thought about facing ISIS, my whole body was shivering and the whole thing seemed more like a joke to me. But when I thought deeply, I realized that I was going to fight with a radical group, and this empowered me so much that all my fears faded away. Women of YPJ are not scared of ISIS".
18-year-old YPJ (Women's Protection Unit) fighter Torin Khairegi: “We live in a world where women are dominated by men. We ar
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